Home > Health & Nutrition

Does exercise really make you live longer?

A new study reveals physical activity may be more about improving the quality of your life, rather than the length

For years, health experts have been encouraging people of all ages to stay active in order to live longer, healthier lives, but does regular exercise actually extend your life? Recently, researchers in Norway found that five years of structured exercise training didn’t impart any significant life-extending cardiovascular health differences on their subjects compared to their less-structured peers, but that doesn’t mean the trained group isn’t still at an advantage.

Study: exercise is better than weight loss to improve long-term health

The study

The aim of the study, which was published in the European Heart Journal, was to compare the effects of five years of supervised exercise training on the cardiovascular risk profile in older adults. To perform the study, the researchers put older adults (age 70-77, half of whom were women, all Norwegian) into one of three groups. One completed five years of supervised, regular HIIT (high-intensity interval) training, another followed an MICT (moderate-intensity continuous training) program during that time, and the third group was instructed to simply follow physical activity recommendations from government health officials.

After five years, the researchers found that the groups who followed the supervised training programs did not experience significantly fewer cardiovascular events than the control group, causing them to conclude that “Five years of supervised exercise training in older adults had little effect on cardiovascular risk profile and did not reduce cardiovascular events.”

Life in your years or years in your life?

Of course, this study was far from perfect. The researchers admitted it was possible that the average Norwegian is already so healthy and fit that having them follow a structured exercise plan may not improve their health all that much. “The healthy and fit study sample, and contamination and cross-over between intervention groups, challenged the possibility of detecting between-group differences,” the researchers said in the study.

The results of the study, however, bring up an important question: does regular exercise actually increase your lifespan, or are the benefits a little more nuanced? In an interview about the study for tctMD, Boston medical doctor Aaron Baggish (who was not involved in the study), explained that the benefits of regular physical activity are more likely to increase someone’s healthspan, rather than their lifespan. “Healthspan is how long someone lives without chronic disease that disables them,” he said. “We know that that the fitter you are, the more activity you get, the better your quality of life. That’s the right rationale to have done this follow-up study.”

Study says endurance training beats strength at improving long-term health

He also notes that the people included in this study were all fairly fit, healthy older adults who were meeting their physical activity requirements. For someone who lives a sedentary lifestyle, beginning an exercise routine, whether structured or unstructured, will improve your cardiovascular risk factors.

The bottom line

Staying active may or may not help you live longer, but it will definitely improve the quality of your life because it’ll give you the energy, strength and mobility to enjoy the activities you want to participate in on a regular basis.